Refugee Flavor

By Noah Graff

At the beginning of September I spent some time traveling in Europe in search of lucrative machine tools, good salsa dancing and inspiration for an enlightening blog. These days the flavor of Europe has a bit of Middle Eastern spice thrown in, giving it a richer color and diverse tastes. The following account will give you a brief sample of the Middle Eastern spice that I encountered on my journey while in Denmark and Germany.

I arrived in Copenhagen on a grey day. I caught a taxi at the airport with a grouchy driver from Macedonia. He told me he has lived in Denmark for 30 years and that the only reason he has stayed was the money, as he dislikes Danish culture and Danish people.

After a wonderful much needed shower, understandably the first item on my agenda on my first night in Europe was to go salsa dancing. I’m trying to experience salsa dancing in as many countries as possible for a new blog I am starting. I quickly found that night’s salsa destination on the Web and caught an Uber taxi. The Uber driver’s name was Islam, and he hailed from Jordan. He was a nice guy and we stressed out together about finding the location of the salsa joint. Like my Macedonian driver, he said he came to Denmark just for the money and disliked the country and its people. On the way back to my hotel that night I had a Turkish Uber driver named Selman who had been born in Denmark. Unlike my previous taxi drivers he said liked living in Denmark and Danish people, though he wished he could move out of Copenhagen because he lives in one of the lesser known, dangerous areas of the city. When I asked him how he felt about Middle Eastern refugees in Europe he said he was conflicted. After a brief pause, he said that it was fine with him for immigrants to come into the country, but he believes they should learn to speak Danish and should not isolate themselves in their own communities. My subsequent Uber drivers in Copenhagen included Mohammad (from Spain), Abdelhafid (Morocco), and Shuaib (I can’t remember where he was from). The consensus among them was, “Money in Denmark is good, but there’s no place like home.” My first reaction when I heard this perspective was that these people should be more grateful for the prosperity and safety they have found in a beautiful First World country. The least they could do would be to appreciate the place. But then I tried to put myself in their shoes. What if I was forced to live in Saudi Arabia to earn enough money to feed my family? It is doubtful I would embrace Saudi culture, even with my worldly open mind. I would likely do my best to find an American community with people who would accept me, relate to me and speak my language. Heck, how would I feel if I was forced to go live in rural Mississippi? Maybe I could embrace the culture there, but I’m sure I would miss life in Chicago where I have spent the majority of my life.

Middle Eastern restaurant in Center of Copenhagen, Denmark.

I tasted my next spoonful of Middle Eastern Europe when I went salsa dancing in Stuttgart, Germany. Stuttgart actually has a surprisingly good salsa scene with places to dance almost every night of the week. That night I went dancing at a bar called “7grad.” I walked outside for some air and struck up a conversation with a tall, skinny Arab man who I had seen dancing inside a few minutes before. Ahmad was 29 years old and had come to Stuttgart from Syria 10 years before—he was a pretty decent dancer.

The dude had a lot on his mind. He was enamored with a blond woman inside the bar who we ogled as she danced with another man. Ahmad said he didn’t go out dancing a lot because he felt guilty about going out and having fun while much of his family remained stuck in Syria. When I asked him if any of his relatives had been killed in the war he surprisingly said that they were more or less safe right now because they had money. But still, Ahmad’s relatives remain trapped in Syria, and no matter how much money they have it is always dangerous living in a country besieged by a war that nobody knows how to stop.

An anti-immigrant poster in Berlin, Germany.

I asked him what he thought about the refugee crisis in Europe, and he said that the real solution was to stop the war in Syria—sensible answer I thought. But then when I asked him how to end the war he began muttering some conspiracy theories relating to Jews on Wall Street. I smiled and said something like, “Hey man, I’m Jewish, please stop with the Jewish stuff.” He kept on with the same nonsense but very calmly, more or less ignoring my comment. I again said, “Don’t talk about Jews like that, I’m Jewish.” But after a few minutes the nonsense ended. He had no hostility towards me. It seemed as though it had hardly registered to him that I was Jewish. He was just spouting some garbage he had been told in his community. He reminded me of Mustafa, my guide when I was in Morocco, who back in 2006 casually told my friend and me that Israel had been responsible for destroying the World Trade Center on 9-11. Both men were ignorant but not dangerous for me personally. On the other hand, when such hateful ignorance is widespread it is fuel for the extreme Islamic Terrorism plaguing the world.

But I digress. In a few minutes my conversation with Ahmad went back to talking about his crush on the blond salsa dancer in the bar, with me advising him about the delicate and strange intricacies of picking up salsa dancers. When our conversation ended I was not sure if Ahmad was more confused and stressed out about girl issues or war in the Middle East. I’m sure everyone can attest to the fact that both topics are eternally vexing. Yet I am happy to say that in the end I could tell Ahmad was at least feeling better having vented his anxiety to the wise American Jew.

Question: Would you like to visit Europe?

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9 thoughts on “Refugee Flavor

  1. mike fassbender

    Noah –

    this salsa fettish is a bit weird, sorry ole Haas . . . yes i have traveled to Europe, but my spare time is spent drinking a local brew pub beer and talking to the natives, not transplants, sorry.

    been to Denmark too – don’t like it, France either. but then . . . i do not like salsa.


  2. tom

    Just returned from Poland.
    Their new tag line should be: Poland: Europe, the way you remember it.

  3. Mindy

    Is it sad that I spent the first few minutes of skimming the blog post and reading the comments thinking that you were talking about salsa the food?

    As for Europe, I have been to Spain, Germany, and Belgium. Loved them all. Appreciated the differences and the similarities. I felt like I wanted to spend even more time there. Of course, after having lived in Japan for 11 years, the cultural adjustment with Europe was not nearly as extreme! I loved putting mayo on my french fries (Belgium), eating dinner no earlier than 9:00 (Spain), and wandering the Christmas markets (Germany). If I were there for a while, I would probably start searching for American-style pizza, bagels, etc., but for extended visits of a few weeks, it was nothing but fun.

    I’m a country line dancer myself, and love finding places to dance wherever I go. Enjoy your search for salsa dancing as you travel the globe. Add guacamole at your own risk!

  4. David

    I waited almost 6o years to visit Europe. In the past three i have been lucky to spend two weeks in Barcelona Spain, and most recently Paris. I don’t know why I waited so long.

    My wife and I rented a small studio apartment in one of the outer ring districts of Paris for two weeks last fall. It is my favorite way to see another city, much cheaper and a lot more fun than staying in a hotel full of other tourists. We rode the “metro” (subway) everywhere. We did all the things we always want to do at home (music, art, nightlife, napping in the afternoon in the park) but never seem to have the time. Everyone spoke French and/or Arabic (we speak neither), the food was better and the alcohol was cheaper. We got by on our guidebook French and found that English was widely understood if you politely tried to communicate in French first…

    There was a large (many blocks long) outdoor food market around the corner from the apartment. Three days a week you could buy almost any fresh or prepared food you could imagine (plus really good cheap wine). There were grocery stores nearby but this seemed to be the preferred way that locals shopped. My favorite stall sold cheese straight from the farm. It was run by an Egyptian woman who had lived in Paris for twenty years. I told her that i loved the city and could imagine living in Paris. She asked me where I lived in the US. When I told her New York City she became very excited. She was fed up with Paris and wanted to move to New York! I laughed and told I could find someone in NYC in a minute who would gladly trade places with her.
    The grass really is always greener…

  5. Emily Halgrimson

    I’ve been to Berlin a few times, Helsinki once (beautiful), and that’s about it as far as Europe goes. I was always more interested in going to places westerners don’t usually go, I lived in Bangladesh for a year and traveled through India and Sri Lanka. I also enjoyed Thailand, though that was much more touristy. West Aftica was tough. Bangladesh was incredible, the nicest people and very few westerners. Although I don’t know if I’d have the courage to travel to a Muslim country as an American these days. Even back then I would say I was from Australia when I felt I wouldn’t be well received. My travel bug has largely disappeared, but someday I hope to discover my heritage more in Norway. What a wonderful job you have, Noah, that allows you to see the world!

  6. Bruskie

    “We have 50 million Muslims in Europe. There are signs that Allah will grant Islam victory in Europe—without swords, without guns, without conquest—will turn it into a Muslim continent within a few decades.”

    Muammar Gaddafi

  7. Kim

    I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel quite a bit throughout Europe and spent almost a decade living in Hungary.

    I once visited a refugee camp in Hungary about 15 years ago with a refugee assistance group. At the time the camp was filled with many residents who for various reasons have made the camp their permanent home. I can’t imagine what the camps are like now. Interestingly I saw no real signs of the refugees when I visited Hungary this summer (I did not go to the refugee camp, but visited various towns around the country.)

    When I moved to Hungary I had no idea I would end up there so long. I can’t imagine not becoming a part of the local community, learning the language and making friends. Of course it was my choice to move there so perhaps it may have been easier for me to be open to a new home. Would you say your Uber drivers were simply migrants seeking a better life, or refugees, forced from their home? Without knowing more than their country of origin, they seem more the former, in which case, they perhaps should reconsider what “a better life” is.)


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